Autism – ADHD- Behavior- Punishment or a Teachable Moment?

Autism? ADHD? Behavior?  Is it a behavior problem that deserves punishment or is it a teachable moment?

Diagnosis is not the point. It’s a story about a soccer ball and a fence. Seems pretty predictable, right?

I was at the soccer field watching grandchildren play Saturday morning soccer.  Something I LOVE to do!

The parents and grandparents were sitting in chairs along the field to watch the game.  While the game was going on in front of us, there was activity behind us, too.  There was a strip of grass that ended at the backyard fence for houses that backed up to the soccer field.

Several children who were not playing in this soccer game were kicking balls around in that grassy area.  I happen to know some of those children and one of them caught my eye.  Let’s call her Suzi.

So here’s what happened

Suzi caught her mother’s attention too. . . .just in time to see her kick the soccer ball over the fence and into the backyard of the home there.

And then here’s what happened

Suzi’s mother started to yell at her.  It was one of those “What did you do that for. . . .I saw what you did. . .yada, yada, yada. . .now you lost your ball. . .it’s gone. . .blah, blah.  Mom was a little long and a little loud.  It was obvious she was mad.  Suzi ended up in “time out” for a while.

But here is what else I know

I happen to know Suzi.  She is delightfully bright about a lot in life.  But sometimes her behavior is impulsive. When she gets “wound up” it's hard to get her to “come down” again. 

Does this sound like someone you know?

I think there are lots of students who would fit that description of behavior.  Autism? ADHD? Diagnosis doesn't matter. The point is. . . .kids act like kids.

So here’s the rest of the story

Dad to the rescue.  He was tall enough to see the whole situation.  After checking things out, he lifted Suzi over the fence to retrieve the beloved ball.

But here’s what I wonder

Did mom miss a really good “teachable moment?”  And this is why I ask the question.  I don’t think Suzi set out to kick the ball over the fence.  I think it was an accident.  

I suspect she was paying more attention to trying to kick that ball than she was to which direction it was going to go.  It’s that attention thing.  After all, making contact with the ball and aiming where you kick it are two different skills. 

I can understand how a child can be focusing so much on one thing that they forget to check out the other thing. Could Suzi have used some instruction about aiming away from the fence?  Probably yes.

It's easy to get mad

Mom reacted with anger.  The “you did something wrong” kind of anger.  Maybe it was justified.  Maybe not. 

I want to be sure to give Mom a lot of grace here. I don’t know what the rest of her day had been like. (Parents and teachers are humans who may encounter endless positive or negative situations each day and how they react is definitely related to everything else they have been dealing with.) But the point is, Mom chose to punish instead of teach.  And that makes me wonder.

So here's the question

How often do we miss those teachable moments?  It is so easy to react to the end result.  It’s natural to respond with correction for the behavior.  But being in time out didn’t equip Suzi for a better result next time.   

What does she need to learn?

When children are having difficulty with behavior or tasks or social situations, my favorite question is. . . . .

What does he or she need to learn? 

It’s a different mind set from punishment and it will produce a different result.  This was a teachable moment. 

The next question is HOW to teach

Of course, intervening before Suzi kicks the ball would be helpful, but that didn't happen. Showing her how to turn around and kick in the other direction is a natural response. Most of us would do that. But that didn't happen either. The opportunity wasn't really there.

Here's one more option

Sometimes we miss teachable moments.  That's life. But there is a perfect opportunity to do some teaching after the event.

I love to write stories with kids.  Write about what happened in their own personal life and what needs to change. Of course, draw some pictures to enhance the activity.

visual strategies - written explanation
visual strategies - child drawing

Writing stories about personal life events can accomplish many purposes.  Here are just a few:

  • Recall the event
  • Describe what happened
  • Resolve the problem
  • Increase memory
  • Develop conversation skills
  • Learn a skill for the future
  • Explore different people's perceptions of an event
  • Feel good about an experience (instead of feeling bad about "doing something wrong" that may have been an accident

Here's a story by an older student

visual strategies - child explanation

Putting an event in writing is creating a visual tool.  If writing or typing is a problem for the student, have him or her dictate so you can write it. 

I love to keep these tools in a 3-ring binder. I find students like to go back to review past events. Or, depending on the situation, I can suggest going back to re-read a specific story to remind the student about something that we wrote about.

Written stories are a wonderful way to use personal experience to expand language skills and communication interaction. Great tool for autism.  Perfect tool for ADHD. Written stories can turn many life events into teachable moments.

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  1. As the parent of a 26 year old with autism ( high functioning)- I agree with you about a teachable moment. Unfortunately, this will continue for the rest of their lives. A parent should not give up; getting angry does not solve anything. A parent/guardian has to continue to teach and believe in that person. With each new phase of life; including getting older, people typical and atypical do some maturing, learning, etc. Every time, I have some type of issue or behavior problems with my son; I go back to basics( review everything I learned from the time he was diagnosed and he responds much faster and the behavior changes with a little more insight on his part.

    This is sweet and bitter at as you realize that he remains a child for the most part.

    1. You are a wise mom. Thank you for sharing. I think all parents and teachers need to remember that the teaching never stops. What we teach may change, but remembering to be aware that our children (no matter what age) may need to be taught something new is really important.

  2. Teachable moment all the way! My son has ADHD and I think it would do more negative to him if you punish an ADHD kid every time he throws a tantrum. Thank you for this informative article.

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